Friday, April 10, 2009

Letter from Pete

When Howard Dean was governor of Vermont, he did some research and discovered that the cheapest and most effective way to deal with homelessness was to give people homes, a policy that he instituted in Vermont. My friend Pete, who was homeless in Gainesville for many years,
expressed the same theory in a letter to me, that I am going to share with you:

"It is noble to feed, clothe and provide other basic necessities to people in need to enable them to better cope with day to day survival. Food solves the hunger problem, clothing solves the nakedness problem, etc. But homeless people need homes. Simple, but it never seems to be dealt with on that level (or if not never, way too seldom).

"There are billions of government and charity dollars spent annually (much of it misspent) on 'poverty.' There is Habitat for Humanity for underemployed and/or overly 'prolific' families. They build these people permanent homes. There is enough tax and charitible money to provide permanent housing for most of the true local homeless. Some homeless have mental issues which would require more than just a livable home. A few people actually choose to be homeless (not many).

"Some of Gainesville's so-called homeless are truly 'transients' who are just passing through or taking a 'hobo vacation' from the winter up north. These people could be dealt with by being allowed to camp temporarily or staying at a transient shelter (such as St. Francis House or the Salvation Army). Many homeless are able-bodied or otherwise employable, have long-time connections to the community, but are prevented from 'pulling themselves up by their bootstraps' by impossible living conditions which keep them tired, infirm, unhygienic etc., and make them less capable. Permanent housing could fix this for many (I have done, a-hem, personal research in this).

"I'm all for feeding, clothing, giving sleeping bags, hygiene items, medical care etc. to homeless and needy folks. But, ONLY HOMES WILL SOLVE HOMELESSNESS. The 'powers that be' are extremely adverse and averse to GIVING people homes. But many
otherwise capable people are totally or greatly incapacitated by homelessness (a major hurdle is to convince the Powers that Be, that they won't be killing the 'Protestant work ethic'). It could definitely be done without spending more money. Just a different direction with the
same amount of funds. And there would be hope of people actually becoming more self-sufficient."


Dumpster Diving....

We've been hearing through the grapevine that a group of campers across from the Food Lion on Hawthorne Road would like visits from the Home Van. Yesterday we stumbled around in the woods until we found them. Winston is living there, James who used to live in the woods off Pistol Alley, and a couple more. Winston's health is fragile and his friends have been very concerned about his nutrition. I will be able to bring him vitamins and energy drinks from the Food Bank now that we've found him. We will also be bringing them a shovel and big
plastic bags for camp beautification. This is a camp where people have a lot of problems, but also have a strong faith in God. We enjoyed talking with them. They have been surviving by dumpster diving behind the Food Lion.

The social needs of homeless people, and all of us, for that matter, can be just as important as food. These guys were eager to talk, share news, and hang out. As the days get longer we will do more of that. Yesterday we had to leave to get to other wooded areas before the sun disappeared.

Dumpster diving is actually a pretty good way to survive. Stores throw out enormous quantities of food that is at or near the date of expiration, most of it still wrapped. The guys who dumpster dive know when the store puts the food out and get it promptly. Johnny Leash, one of our homeless friends, has his own little outreach program of dumpster diving for food on behalf of an AIDS patient and an old veteran he knows, both of whom are housed but have little money for food. Robert the Vegan also dumpster dives on behalf of other people. In
San Antonio, Texas there is a a whole colony of voluntarily homeless people who dumpster dive on behalf of the chronically homeless population. I read about them on the Internet. They are mostly young folks who are making a statement - they believe our society has become so morally corrupt and wasteful that they have left it behind to live in solidarity with homeless people, reclaiming what society throws away. WAY TO GO!!!! As an old sixties kid, this just dazzles me. What if they gave a government and nobody came?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Goodby to Tony

Tony, a long time member of the Sweetwater Branch Community,
died yesterday morning at Shands Hospital, after suffering a stroke earlier
this month. He was in his forties and worked as a house painter. Tony was
also a singer-songwriter. Despite the personal demons that resulted in
chronic homelessness for Tony, he was an incredibly hard worker, right up
to the very onset of his final illness, and he never lost touch with his music. Tony
and his partner Dusty had one of the nicer camps at Sweetwater. They
had a large tent with a double bed, a coffee table, and a television hooked
up to a car battery. Outside Tony had created a patio area, under a tarp,
with shelves fastened to a tree, where they kept food, a clothesline, and
outside the patio, a fire pit for cooking. They had several cats. The last
few months of Tony's life they moved into a house trailer with friends.

A year ago I visited Tony and Dusty at their camp and Tony asked me if
he could audition to play music for the Home Van's third birthday party, which
was to take place at the Downtown Plaza. He brought a battered guitar out of
their tent and sang a song he had written himself, called "Hard Times," about
a family living in poverty. It was a beautiful song, in the tradition of Waylon
Jennings and Willie Nelson. Tony's scratchy, soulful voice did the song justice.

The day of our party, Tony brought his band with him, The Sweetwater Branch Boys,
made up mainly of homeless musicians. They played on stage and they
were good! It was a wonderful party.

Bad Decisions

Many people wind up homeless because of bad decisions, such as marrying the wrong
person, taking the wrong job, or getting involved with drugs and alcohol. Enormous
numbers of housed people have also made bad decisions - in fact, the very same ones -
but had money and family support, or made these bad decisions in more forgiving times.
Paris Hilton and George Bush can make bad decisions, but poor people can't afford it.

One of our long-time friends, whom I will call Celeste, has a long history of bad decisions,
and has now entered the Bad Decisions Hall of Fame. After years of being homeless or
marginally housed, she received an insurance settlement for several thousand dollars.
We hoped that she would rent an apartment or buy a reliable car (Celeste works
steadily at low-paying jobs). Celeste bought two horses. She has been couch-surfing
while all her money goes to feeding and stabling these horses. She has now decided
to take the horses to Ocala, riding one while holding on to the other by a tether, and
live with them in the Ocala National Forest.

In a world of bad decisions, Celeste has raised the concept of bad decisons to the
level of epic poetry.

Something may happen to interrupt this plan. Celeste has an uncanny ability to land
on her feet, somehow, someway. I'll keep you posted.....

Rainy Night Driveout

The serious rain began just as we were leaving. First we went up to Waldo Road
and found Marti waiting for us at the bus shelter across from the woods where she has her camp.
Marti's happiness and loving spirit make it a great pleasure to visit her. She has had a multitude of obstacles to deal with, beginning with a childhood of abuse, and has been homeless for most of her life. Marti trusts in God, loves people, and shares whatever she has with those who need it.
I would like to see Marti on some program such as Larry King Live, sharing her philosophy with a fearful world.

Then we went down to Williston Road. No one was waiting for us so we decided to walk up as far
as Dusty's camp. They thought we wouldn't come because of all the rain, but, as I explained,
we are the Home Van Idiots and a little rain doesn't stop us. Dusty and Tony have used a big
tarp and stakes to create an outdoor living room, with chairs and cats and guitars. We visited with Dusty, Tony and Olan and then moved on to the Tent City area to see Ray, Kevin and Wanda.

We had our usual fare last night - PB&Js, bananas, and boiled eggs, plus five gallons of wonderful
homemade chicken soup brought by Katie.

Then we went downtown where our folks were waiting for us in a covered area I won't mention, since it is frowned on for them (and us) to be there. We served dinner and had a great time schmoozing with people.

We almost didn't go to Lynch Park, since we rarely find people there when it's raining, but we decided to drive by and look. Thank goodness we did! There were a bunch of people standing under the overhang of the convenience store, and more people appeared as we were serving. I still had a bunch of dry t-shirts in the back, which folks were glad to get.

Primal Scenes...

On some driveouts we experience moments that will be etched in our memories forever. Last Tuesday wewere in Lynch Park. No one seemed to be around, so we were getting ready to leave when Terry came running across University Avenue and through the park, screaming over and over again, "I am so cold! I am so hungry!"

Terry is in her thirties. She is about 4' 10" tall and weighs maybe 70 pounds. Tuesday night she was wearing thin slacks and a tank top. She recognized our van. The old grey Home Van has been prowling the streets of Gainesville looking for peoplewho need us for more than four years. Before that, it was the Breakfast Brigade Van and went to the day labor agencies, bringing Kelli Brew's wonderful home-made bread, boiled eggs, and fresh fruit to the workers.

I first met Terry a few years ago when we were touring homeless campsites with Commissioner Long. She knew him because she used to work at a dry cleaners where he dropped off his clothes. Having a public officialout in the woods made Terry nervous, so she sang gospel songs, I think to comfort herself. At one point shestopped and said to me, "When I was 12, my mother died and my father broke me in."

Many homeless women, and virtually all women who work in prostitution, as Terry does, were the victims of long-term sexual abuse in childhood. Terry has multiple serious addictions. Still, she has a bright spirit, andwe are always glad to see her. Thank God, that night we had a warm turtle-neck sweater and a jacket, in her size. Often we are tapped out of warm clothing by the time we reach Lynch Park. I am grateful to the Home Van, to all of you who make it possible, and to all the brave and beautiful people we meet out in the parks and woods of Gainesville.

Hard Times....

KIT-KAT came by to see me yesterday. Many of you have seen her downtown, trundling along with a shopping cart or a little red wagon, with her dog and all her worldly possessions within it. Sh'mal moved her into an apartment shortly before Christmas - and then went to Walgreens and got her a string of Christmas lights! She looks great - so thoroughly coiffed and shiny and happy I barely recognized her. Miracles happen when people are able to live indoors.

These miracles are not easy to come by. Landlords who are renting out roach-infested, substandard apartments in crack neighborhoods require credit checks and background checks before they will rent to someone. You have to pass a drug test to get a job flipping burgers.
It wasn't always like this. People with problems used to be able to rent rooms and get casual employment, pretty much just by showing up for it. Then they could go to community mental health centers that took drop-ins and charged a sliding scale that started out as low as a dollar a session. Public and community colleges had very low tuition and troubled "youts" could even go to school while they put their lives back together.

During the 1960s a lot of lives needed to be put back together. The 1950s was a period of silence and repression in our country. Alchol and pill addiction, child abuse and domestic battery took place behind closed doors while nearly everyone looked the other way and pretended it wasn't happening. A friend of mine once told me a story that is emblazoned on my brain forever, because it so typifies the era I grew up in. Her father was an alcoholic. One day he was passed out on the couch in the formal "parlor" where guests were entertained, just at the time the
family minister was due to come by for his weekly, 20-minute pastoral call. Her mother threw a couch cover over her father and had all the children sit on top of him, in a row, during the reverend's visit. The reverend may or may not have been taken in by this ruse, but if he wasn't he never said anything. That's how family problems were handled in the 1950s.

Little wonder that the teenagers and young adults of the 1960s turned the world upside down in our desire to "let it all hang out." The safety net we needed to get us through these years was in place. Now it isn't. If you have addictions, mental illness, emotional problems, you better have money or a family that will put up with you, or you are going to end up in a tent in the woods, or, like Kit Kat, sleeping behind a building next to a dumpster.

Legions of brave social workers, ministers, and volunteers are working on this problem - one person at a time. Someday we will prevail. It is a law of the universe that pendulums don't swing in one direction forever.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Homeless Poems

Homeless Poems roam
alleluia alleluia
Real World
god-homed chambers of the poor,
green-lace cascades,
white bells tumbling down,
golden trumpets drifting through the air,
running water, sweet water, sweet water branch,
vast grandmothers with witching hair,
branches raised in prayer,
standing guard this sacred ground,
sweet jesus beer, broken bones
beneath the Bohdi tree where he
is bathed by stars and wind
the homeless poems sing
alleluia alleluia
for broken hearts where ibis fly,
where sand cranes bless the morning air,
where muddy hosannas of snakes in their caves,
along the running water, sweet water, sweet water branch,
witching hair,
branches raised in prayer,
alleluia alleluia


Edgar Perez, a homeless man we knew from the early days of the Home Van, left this
world yesterday. I want to talk about Edgar, not just because I cared about him, but because his
story is important. Edgar was born and raised in a high-crime, high-poverty neighborhood in the Bronx. He became a gang member and drug dealer at a young age. He married and had children. One day his young daughter said to him, "Daddy, I want to be just like you when I grow up." This was a wake-up call to him. He imagined his daughter, whom he loved so much, growing up to a life of drugs, guns, jail, and early death. Edgar quit the gang, quit dealing drugs, and moved his family to Florida.

His marriage did not survive all these upheavals, and Edgar ended up living in the woods and working day labor. His wife, however, got a good job and his daughter graduated from high school and went on to attend college.

Edgar was a happy person for the first few years we knew him. He was independent, going to day labor every day and meeting his own needs. He loved sitting around the campfire with other homeless guys, at the end of the day. He loved to laugh and could tell many a good story.
Then Edgar was diagnosed with cancer. In the course of treatment, other medical problems emerged. He applied for and received Disabililty, Medicaid, and an apartment at Sunrise Residence Inn. Although he faced medical challenges, he had a good attitude and hoped to overcome his problems.

One day Edgar was in the parking lot of the Sunrise Inn when an altercation broke out between two police officers and a suspect they were attempting to apprehend. The suspect had a gun. The police officers asked Edgar to come to their assistance and Edgar, according to his own account, froze. All three people involved in the fight were carrying guns. He was scared and didn't know what to do. He didn't have a cellphone or even a land phone in his apartment, where he might have dialed 911. After the suspect was apprehended, the police officers arrested Edgar and charged him with failure to come to the assistance of a police officer. He spent several months in jail, since the bail was more than anyone could come up with. While he was in
jail, his Disability check and Medicaid were taken away from him.

Egar finally got out of jail after the charges against him were dropped, but he did not get his Disability and Medicaid back. He had to reapply, which turned out to be a long and torturous process. He never did get either one back. He could no longer receive the medications he needed. He became depressed and pretty much gave up on life.

Edgar lost his benefits before he was found guilty of anything, and they were not restored
to him even after the charges against him were dropped. This is not an isolated instance. Homeless people and very poor people are "guilty until proven innocent." As far as I'm
concerned, Edgar was killed by the government.

Segregation, injustice, and oppression based on economic status is, in my opinion, THE civil rights issue of our time. It is multi-faceted and pandemic. All persons of conscience need to be involved in the struggle to restore civil liberties and full citizenship to poor and homeless people.

Here is what we need to remember about Edgar: Edgar loved his children and he managed, through his own efforts, to give them a far, far better life than he ever had. He was a happy guy who worked, took care of himself, and helped others whenever he could. He was a candle in the darkness of our times. In memory of him, we need to keep our candles shining brightly, however dark and long the night. Goodbye Edgar. We love you.

Two Dollars

This year the din of "Hark the Herald Tribune Sings, Advertising Wondrous Things"
(thank you Tom Lehrer) has been so incessant, I've felt tempted to spend December in a cave,
eating boiled groats, until my bah humbugs were banished by a gift we received from Linda.
Linda is one of our more mysterious visitors. She comes to the van for dinner every Tuesday and Thursday, speaking with no one, and then disappearing. I don't know for sure that she's homeless, but the fact that's she's always wearing a backpack suggests that she is. She is reserved, and does not invite conversation. Once I asked her if there was any other kind of help we could give her, such as referrals to other agencies that might be able to help her with housing or employment or anything like that. She told me that she is fine and has plans. That was many months ago.

Two weeks ago Linda gave me a $2 donation for the Home Van. I folded my hand around the dollars and said, "This is a bus pass." She smiled at me and said, "Yes. And it's six stamps or four phone calls." We stood together for a moment, marveling at this, and then she disappeared.
I've been thinking about all you can do with two dollars. It's also a piece of chocolate, a cup of hot coffee on a cold morning. At the dollar store it is twenty utility candles, enough to sit in one's tent and read every night for a month, a pair of reading glasses, a pack of cards, two rain ponchos...

Two dollars is connection, travel, comfort, light...

Two dollars is everything...

These Are Human Beings

Not everyone goes into cold night shelter, no matter how cold the night. Some are trapped in the iron cage of mental illness and addiction. Some
don't have a photo I.D., and cannot, therefore, get the police clearance the city mandates (a police clearance is a warrants check). For many years, advocates have been asking the city commission to repeal this cruel law that results in human beings spending the night outdoors when the temperatures are in the teens and twenties, to no avail.

Small faith-based missions and some individual citizens go out on cold nights with blankets and hot food. The suffering we see still leaves us in a state of stunned disbelief. Last Thursday night we found Martha stretched out on the sidewalk next to what homeless people call "the pee tree." (In order to have clean ground to lay on and keep their belongings, one tree is designated as an outdoor latrine of sorts.) Martha, a woman with asthma and diabetes, who is in late middle age, was sobbing in pain, because she had twisted her ankle, or maybe even broken it, in a fall. Her friend Terry wanted to call the paramedics, but Martha was refusing. Terry asks, "How am I going to get her to my tent? She can't walk. She's going to freeze out here." Finally Terry decides to walk across the street and ask the paramedics to come. She yells at them, "Martha needs help." A male voice yells back, "Martha? Okay." A few minutes go by and we decide to go over to the fire station and put in another plea. We get there and see the paramedics walking our way.

In the meantime, Steve is helping a drunken man who is slumped in front of a dumpster on a urine-soaked blanket. He is angry, but Steve manages to coax him into eating a cup of hot soup. The man then passes out and Steve covers him with a silver emergency blanket. He will live through the night.

These are human beings. Most of them are victims of war, illness, disabilities, abuse and poverty. Even if that were not true, none of them deserve this. The state gives shelter, food and medical care to people convicted of heinous crimes, while ignoring and denying the suffering of these human beings.

There is a sense of deep, ancient living prayer in these acts of mercy. We are out in the dark and the cold, in a vast and incomprehensible universe. Every hand that stretches out with a cup of soup or a blanket, is a hand extended to God saying, "We are here. We are still here. Please be with us. Please have mercy on us."


Janel Minish McMillan, one of the greatest souls and most bright and shining stars ever to grace our homeless community, and to rise up from it, died this past weekend, suddenly and unexpectedly. It is believed that she died from an aneurysm. For those of you who knew her, her service will be this coming Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. at Celebrations Methodist church, 9501 SW Archer Road.

Janel was a homeless alcoholic for almost ten years. When I met her she was living in a little open shed behind University Music Store on West University Avenue, with several other homeless people. The living conditions there were so terrible we called it the "black hole of Calcutta." Over the next few years I don't think I ever saw Janel sober.

I often say that I learn a lot from homeless people. One thing I learned from Janel is that only God knows what potential a human being has. I often saw Janel as a hopeless case, and one who got on my nerves considerably (not that any of us are improved by large quantities of alcohol, being Irish I can personally testify to that). Then a miracle happened.

One day Janel was in the downtown plaza and she went over to a man wearing a suit and tie - she had no idea who he was - and said, "My name is Janel and I need help." This man was the executive director of Meridian! He made a phone call and Janel went immediately into the 3 day detox program (getting someone into detox immediately in Gainesville is impossible - but not when a miracle is happening.) Two days later this man (whose name I don't know) went to the detox facility to check on Janel. She was doing well, so he enrolled her in Meridian's 30-day rehab program (another miracle - to get into this program without insurance.)

I saw Janel after she got out of Meridian. At first I didn't recognize her, and then I almost burst into tears. I had never before seen such a transformation in a human being. She was radiating light.

With the help of Gail Monahan of the Alachua County Housing Authority, Janel and her partner, Michael McMillan, got an apartment. Janel got a job. The last time I spoke with her, she was planning to enrol at Santa Fe. This was all a few years ago. During those years she worked steadily on her life and never wavered once. She and Michael joined Celebrations Methodist Church, and Janel started singing in their choir. This church became the center of their lives. They got married there, in a beautiful ceremony and Janel and Michael looked like the happiest people on earth.

After leaving the homeless community Janel used her voice to help other homeless people, and to reach out to the community. She wrote a beautiful Speaking Out Column in the Gainesville Sun, about her experiences of being a homeless alcoholic and then becoming healed. She gave testimony before the City Commission several times, speaking with total honesty about her life and telling them that homeless people can change if they are given a chance.

We are planning to plant a tree in Janel's honor. I know nothing about selecting and planting trees. I could use some guidance from the gardeners on this list about what tree to buy and how to plant it.

My life is forever enriched by having known Janel.

Iraq Veterans

One of our readers asked for more information about the Iraq veterans we are seeing. I don't know how many we are seeing. Except during the Point-In-Time Survey, we never ask people why they are homeless, or any other personal questions. The first Iraq veteran we saw, a year or two ago, was very young and extremely angry. He didn't attack anyone, but he did take his guitar off his backpack and pound it on the sidewalk. I've never seen him again and don't know what happened to him. Another young Iraq veteran was homeless because his family had taken out a restraining order against him, because he was doing them violence. Domestic violence by veterans with severe PTSD is one cause of homelessness among returning soldiers. This young man took full responsibility for what he had done. He knew he couldn't go home until he had gotten treatment. He did take every opportunity to work and gather money for his children. He also bought a bicycle at a garage sale and fixed it up for his son's 12th birthday. And he donated money and bicycles to the Home Van. He has moved on now, to seek better employment opportunities elsewhere.

Julie is a young woman veteran from Iraq. While she was over there, her father, her only surviving parent, died. She came home from Iraq with severe PTSD and nowhere to go. She is living in a tent with two other veterans, both older and with worse medical problems. She takes care of them and brings them food. She is on various waiting lists to get help for herself.

The last time she was here she noticed I have a small electric piano. She said, "Oh, please can I play it! I have been dreaming about being able to play a piano again! Please!" She went over to my little piano and started playing classical music, beautifully, and then segued into a beautiful improvisation she created herself, one that included a mysterious, ominous, relentless beating of drums.

I think it was Ghandi who said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." What better advice is there, for these dark times?

The Story of Kelly

Kelly showed up in Lynch Park about two months ago. She is from Long Island. How she ended up in Gainesville I do not know. She has severe asthma, cysts on her knees that make every step she takes painful, and a host of other medical problems. We've had the A Team trying to get appropriate services for her for awhile, but she keeps disappearing - either to the
hospital or to the home of a 'friend' who takes her in for a few days when her disability check arrives. Last Tuesday we found Kelly in Lynch Park wearing surgical scrubs with a feeding tube hanging from her stomach. She had been discharged from Shands in this condition. They gave her a liquid that requires refrigeration to put down her tube, along with several medications that must be ground up and stirred into this liquid. She tried to get a medical bed at St. Francis House but was told that they were filled to capacity.

There is a storefront mission near Lynch Park. I went there, to see if they would let Kelly sleep inside their facility, while we worked something out. I received an extremely cold reception and left them to their activity of singing about Jesus and passing a collection basket. When I went across the street, I found Peanut, Kelly's caregiver, slowly grinding up her pills with a rock, stirring them into the water we brought, and pouring them down her feeding tube. Peanut is chronically homeless and, in all probablity, a crack addict. I wondered who Jesus would recognize as his friend, Peanut or the folks at the mission? Next morning, Sh'mal got Kelly into a nursing home.

Patient dumping of homeless and very poor people is a national problem. It has been going on in Gainesville for some time, but this is the most egregious example I have ever encountered. We tried to get a story about this into the Gainesville Sun, but have not succeeded. People can draw their own conclusions about that.